The Unfixed Narrative of America: An Interview with Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu is a name you should know, if you don’t already.
His brilliant new novel All Our Names, published this year to critical acclaim, is his third in seven years, following How to Read the Air (2010) and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007). His first novel received the Guardian First Book Award, and since then he has earned numerous honors including the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Award, and multiple literary fellowships. In 2012 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Clearly he’s doing something right.
Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and immigrated with his family at the age of two to Peoria, Illinois, where he grew up. He has since lived in several cities across the U.S., including New York and Washington, DC. His work deals with intersections of location and identity, with loss and loneliness and the desire for connection, with our own internal geographies and the ways in which we try to make sense of our place in the world.
A graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s MFA program, Mengestu is currently the Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics at Georgetown. He will visit American University on Monday, October 6, for the Visiting Writer Series.
CA: As a native Washingtonian, I loved your descriptions and characterization of the city in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. When was your first encounter with DC? Was it when you came to Georgetown University as an undergraduate?
DM: Actually, I’d been coming to DC since I was fairly young. My uncle, when he immigrated from Ethiopia, came to DC. So DC was one of the first cities we visited after we arrived in America, and I would spend parts of my summers with him and his wife. I started getting a pretty good sense of the city from a really young age. Outside of Chicago, it was probably the only other city that I knew well.
CA: What was your experience of the city?
DM: When I was a child, my first impressions were that we would come to DC because there was always family, and it was the only other place I knew that had a lot of Ethiopians. This is when 18th Street actually still had a lot of Ethiopians as well, so we’d walk down the street and my father would run into family friends, like high school friends that he didn’t even know were in America. So it had a kind of magical, surreal quality where you would go to the city and people just start showing up who speak the same language, who know your family from a long time ago. So that was always one half of the memories. And then the other half was the stark poverty. My family lived in an apartment block full of Ethiopians in the suburbs [of Illinois], but then you’d come to the city and you’d see many more homeless people back then than I’d really ever noticed before. And so you had a sense that this was a city full of power; the sort of symbolic power of DC is evident everywhere. And that always seemed to stand in such starker contrast—I mean, this is from a child’s perspective; obviously things are a lot more complex as an adult. But as a child, the fact that you’d see so many homeless people next to such monumental buildings at the same time always seemed strange.
CA: How was it then coming back here for college?
For college, I had a pretty atypical experience. I went to Georgetown, but I spent really as little time there as possible. My freshman year I was doing a lot of community service and volunteer work, so I spent a lot of time working with the National Coalition for the Homeless. So I spent a lot of time with the homeless population of DC my first year, and then later on, working at a nonprofit that was trying to start an afterschool program in the East Capitol Housing Projects. And then I had a girlfriend who went to Howard, so I also ended up spending a lot of time with her outside of the Georgetown campus. And then by myself, I lived in Adams Morgan and stayed in Adams Morgan for the next four years. My jobs really kept me working, my summers living by the East Capitol projects. And my jobs really expanded my sense of what lay beyond the Northwest quadrant of DC, so by the time I was junior I knew the city really, really well; I knew parts of the city that no one really at that time would have gone to, including parts of Northeast and Anacostia. So that really deepened my love for the city, because I knew it from so many different perspectives, and the more you get to know something, the more I think you are forced to admire it.
CA: At that time, had you already started writing about the city?
DM: No. [Laughs.] I was trying to write, definitely, but at that time I was writing some terrible crap about some small town in the Midwest. I didn’t really begin to write about DC until I left. I went to New York for my MFA, and it wasn’t until I’d been there for about three years, three and half years that I started. I was back in DC—I still came back to DC quite often because I had a lot of friends there, my girlfriend was in law school there. I had already written one novel that failed and wasn’t going to get published, and then I was back in DC just for like 48 hours, and then I started The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears one evening.
CA: What was that first novel?
DM: [Laughs.] It was just set in the Midwest. That’s all that needs to be said. An imaginary town in the Midwest.
CA: You returned to Ethiopia for the first time as an adult, around age 26. What was that like?
DM: Pretty great. I stayed for three, three and a half months. I found a lot of family members and friends of family that I had either never met before or hadn’t seen since I was a child, which was wonderful. I felt both instantly at home and instantly in a foreign country. That has a nice tension that I think makes life interesting.
CA: Did you take a lot of notes, or do some writing while you were there? Did you return and spend more time there later?
DM: I went just after I finished The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. The novel was done, not published yet but I had an agent for it, and I felt like it was a good time to actually go back. And I went back with the idea of trying to write something specific about it, but I never actually did that. I went back and stayed with family and wandered the city a lot by myself and immersed myself in being back home and traveled a little bit more. I’ve been back again since then, but it wasn’t about trying to write about it really. I guess because the writing about it that it already done was writing that I had imagined my way into writing anyway, so I’d written about Ethiopia before I even went back to it. Going back to it didn’t grant me any more authority or legitimacy in what I had described. I don’t even think I changed a single sentence in my descriptions.
CA: In various interviews, you’ve talked about taking facts as a point from which to leap, from which “to create the details that can bring a story to life.” And it does feel like the gaps in our lives often become places that we fill with fiction, first instinctively as children and then sometimes consciously as adults, in an attempt to create a unified theory of our own identity, our past. How do you think that your writing has helped you to the creation of or an understanding of your own identity?
DM: I think it’s sort of as you said—there’s that quote from Marilynne Robinson: “The facts tell you nothing. If anything, it’s the facts that need explaining.” And so you have all these facts of your life, from where you were born, to what your name is, to who your parents are, but none of those facts allow you do this idea of cognitive mapping, where you can see yourself in relationship to the greater whole around you. And writing allows you to do that kind of mapping, where it allows you to draw and connect these threads that seem to be opposed or standing on opposite corners of the world. And so for me, it’s drawing lines between all the various places that I’ve occupied, both emotionally, psychologically, culturally, where I’ve been born, from DC to Ethiopia, to New York, to Chicago. And so to some degree you are creating this geographic terrain, like a little physical terrain that does serve as a sort of narrative through-line to your own life, but I think is also a cultural, psychological plane that your own personal history or narrative is also part of a larger, collective narrative, and the only way your own personal narrative makes sense is if you can also see it somehow reflected as an essential component of the larger cultural, political, social narrative that surrounds you. And that means participating in literature, and feeling like you’re not just writing narratives of African writers or Ethiopian writers but American literature at the same time. All those things get wound up in your story life and you begin to see yourself a little bit more fully when you’re engaged with that process.
CA: Sometimes people have the tendency to see identities as mutually exclusive, identity as a fixed thing rather than a fluid—
DM: Yeah, when it’s more than one thing. Your identity isn’t just “X”; there’s no reason why it has to have only one passage to it. I can’t think of anything that’s more interesting to have only one singular shape to it. Nothing that’s worth knowing can be reduced to one thing. I don’t know why we tend to think of identity as somehow needing that property. It seems to me the exact opposite—that there’s nothing more complex than how we perceive or construct ourselves. And so why feel like we have to be defined by one thing? Why say that you are from someplace “X”, when you feel like you belong to multiple places or cultures or people?
CA: There was one critic who called The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears “a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel.” Do you think speaks to a kind of increasing cultural awareness of identity as a fluid thing, as something we forge for ourselves from all these disparate elements?
DM: I think the idea has always been there, the idea of the American narrative as—more than anything—one of constant expansion. It’s a very unfixed narrative, a very unfixed identity, a very unfixed sensibility, even though people may like to think of it as more determined than it actually is. But at its core it’s rather rapidly evolving and changing and it always has been. I think now we’re just witnessing a different expansion. It initially expanded in the realm of allowing different people from Europe to be included in it, and now it’s expanded even beyond that, so now the idea that an American narrative also includes people who have Latin American descent and Asian descent and African descent to a degree that it never really had before. And that line about it being a great African novel and a great American novel I think is partly in recognition of that, that these things are no longer mutually exclusive anymore, that we have new writers from Asia and America and Latin America and Africa who are also writing about America at the same time and their books fit into those traditions and also more specifically the American tradition as well, because it’s a tradition that—again, despite what people may think—does not have a singular source to it.
CA: Even with this sort of expansion of awareness or recognition of all these overlapping narratives as part of American literature, aren’t there voices that are underrepresented in literary fiction or publishing in general?
DM: Oh yeah, massively. [Laughs.] Completely. I think sometimes because we see one or two things, we somehow feel like the job is done. It’s like, “Ah, great, I’ve seen a black man in a film in Hollywood this year. Therefore this is no longer an underrepresentation.” Or, “Great, now we have Yiyun Li writing about Chinese Americans, so clearly the narrative is done.” I think there’s always this worry that somehow there’s going to be a certain fatigue, like, “Now do we really need to have another writer from another one of those foreign places writing about their lives in America? Doesn’t that begin to seem tedious?” Because no one ever asks that question, like, “Do we need another story about Connecticut?” That seems to be totally OK, all the time. Or another story about Brooklyn. No one seems to doubt that somehow Brooklyn is an endlessly inexhaustible terrain to write about. So yeah, I think you’re always pressing against that, so even when people think, “Oh now is such a good time to be writing from those places,” that’s really not true. It’s always a bad time.
CA: One of the articles that mentioned your work was talking about a recent “boom” in African writers being published in the United States, like, “This year, this is what’s hot”—is that a simplistic way of thinking about a complex situation?
DM: I think in that case there’s sort of a recognition that something interesting is happening, and I think it’s kind of true, that there have been more writers from Africa both in the U.S. and the U.K. whose writing in English is gaining more recognition than there has been since maybe the Sixties, the moment after colonialism ended. And I think that makes sense. It’s not that suddenly African writers have suddenly started being good, it’s the change in politics that has happened. The generation post-Sixties was writing about the end of colonialism; what followed after that was a long series of tyranny across the continent, a lot of political oppression, a lot of people being put away, and some writers continued to write, including Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It was much harder for a new generation of writers to come up out of that. Their voices were definitely being actively silenced by their governments. And so now we’re the ones who either because of diaspora, because our parents left, or because the situations have changed where our families still are, where we were born and raised, we get to do now what wouldn’t have been possible before. So I think we’re just watching the inevitable result of what happens when dissent is possible.
CA: You’ve talked about yourself as a political writer, in that you’re engaged with the issues of our time and place. What do you see as the political power of fiction?
DM: We tend to not like thinking of writing as something political because we worry about it being didactic. But I think if you create a character in a context, in a world, the more you start expanding that world, the more you run into politics. So if you write about someone living on a farm in a really small town and there’s no one else around, the moment that person steps out of that town they’re going to encounter some political reality. And the moment you begin to expand that character’s sense of their place in the world, the more you but up against political concepts. That doesn’t mean you have to choose a side of your politics; it just means you’re going to have to somehow incorporate those things into the character’s worldview because whether you like it or not, they do exist in a political reality. So for me it’s the degree to which you’re willing to incorporate that. How far are you willing to push your characters’ experiences into that sort of realm? And for me, I tend to push them as far as I can. I see them as inevitably affected and shaped and defined by their political reality, by the world that exists around them. Whether it’s because of direct violence or because of oppression or because of migration, they are inevitably subject to the world around them. So I’m not trying to define my politics so much as to show the political context in which my characters exist, how they are sometimes destroyed, sometimes saved, sometimes brutalized by what the world is.
CA: Do you see fiction with that kind of awareness as having some kind of political power or effect on the cultural mindset?
DM: No, I’m pretty cynical about the way the world works. There’s an argument that—that we know it’s daft to think that we’re going to change the world, that poetry makes nothing happen. So the same thing, I think, is obviously true of fiction. I do think in the absence of that, though, the world can be a darker place. You know you’re not going to change anything by trying to write about the sort of frustrations of the world that we live in, but I also think that if you don’t do it, that if no one does anything about it and no one tries to make art out of it, then you’ve somehow lost. I don’t know what it is we’ve lost, but it’s a darker place. That doesn’t mean you get to make it better, it just means you get to help ensure that it’s not any more fucked up.
CA: What’s your relationship with your own books after they are completed?
DM: That’s an interesting question. I try to forget them, by and large. I’m sort of obliged to talk about them for a very long time, so to some degree I can’t. But if I’m lucky I’m working on something else, trying to keep my brain actively thinking towards what I haven’t done yet. It doesn’t always work out that way, but ideally. With the past three books, normally by the time each book is published, I’ve been working for a while on the next book and so my relationship to the last book as a product of imagination is over. I don’t think about the characters anymore because I have new people to worry about. It’s like you have a small hotel, and you’ve had guests staying for way too long, and when they leave you’re really worried about the new people who have just shown up.
CA: I love that.
DM: [Laughs.] I think it’s the weirdest simile I’ve ever made. I’m going to stick with that one for a while now.
CA: What’s next? Do you have some new guests moving in? Any reservations?
DM: No, I’ve got no idea what comes next. You need a fair amount of time with the early parts of the book to make sure that it’s going to be a book. At least for me I do. I can’t write short stories. I’ve never written a good short story. I’ll probably never try a short story again as far as I can see. So writing means starting a story and hopefully getting deep enough in it to actually feel like it needs to exist more, but it should be something longer, something to be followed through. So it’s hard to know.
CA: Why do you think it is that you don’t write short?
DM: I don’t know. I think because I don’t have that many ideas. I get one idea every couple years and that’s the only thing my brain gets concerned about pursuing. Normally a story begins because there are a couple sentences running in my head for a while, and I finally sit down and put them in and things start unfolding from there. But the rest of the time it’s blank up there.
CA: An empty hotel.
CA: Are there any writers you’re excited about right now?
DM: I think Ben Lerner is wonderful. I love Junot Diaz’s work. Edward P. Jones. Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Karen Russell. I think it’s becoming a great period of really wonderful, cool writers who do more things—the variations of the literary landscape are great right now, I think.
CA: Any up-and-coming writers, anyone you’ve recently discovered?
DM: Dmitry Legér. A Haitian writer. I’m just starting to read his manuscript [GOD LOVES HAITI] now.
CA: Thank you so much.
DM: My pleasure.
Devin Symons (@devinsymons) is the Editor-in-Chief of Café Americain and a third year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.